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I Designed a Series of Workshops to take back my body

Being a Muslim and an artist are two things that go hand in hand for me. Becoming an artist has been a purposeful, intentional choice. Last year, I was commissioned by Factory International to research and develop an idea I’ve been exploring my entire life—experiencing my entire life, even. I decided to begin investigating what it means to be a Muslim woman in Britain’s current political climate and how Muslim women in the United Kingdom navigate these turbulent times. In the last fourteen years the political scope has plummeted into one that propagated the war on terror, conflating British Muslim identity with something fearful—the other and alien. We are paying the price of its impact in damaging ways, especially as Muslim women.

Therefore, I proposed this project hoping to create a narrative for myself and other Muslim women that belonged to us, first and foremost. This narrative would be led by us too, not by exoticized opinions that are often reductive and, far too often, not written by us. The white gaze others us in a precarious way, the harms of which have a lasting impact on how we are seen and interacted with, but there is never any accountability for it. We are expected to just exist, wholly as ourselves, continuing in our Muslimness with these treacherous misconceptions, discriminations, and outright misogynistic anti-Muslim rhetoric imposed on us. There is no manual directing us in negotiating how to successfully be in our light. So, I wanted to create a space in which Muslim women could safely begin discussing all of it. No gaze: just us, the trust between us, and lots of tea and snacks.

Therefore, I proposed this project hoping to create a narrative for myself and other Muslim women that belonged to us, first and foremost.

My project was to have discussions around planned activities that thematically surrounded the ideas of belonging, identity and home in relation to the provocation of creating a narrative. This consisted of two workshops I held in person and some closed conversations I had with Muslim women, some writing time to process my findings, and a closed sharing with my funders, peers, and some friends.

I began by inviting Muslim women of all ages and backgrounds to the workshop element I devised. I wanted the participants of my workshops to be diverse and include Muslim women from all walks of life. This included visibly Muslim women, those who do not look visibly Muslim, married, divorced, young, older, born Muslim women, reverts, South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA), East African, Eastern European—anyone who identified as a Muslim woman. I recorded the workshops I led, transcribed them, and later used this as a stimulus to write and respond to.

Four woman in hijabs sit while taking part in a workshop.

Nasima Bee with participants from a take back my body research workshop conducted by Nasima Bee at Saan1 Manchester, commissioned by Factory International.

In these workshops I structured our conversations in the three aforementioned strands: belonging, identity, and home. Within the belonging section, I encouraged the participants to discuss where they felt they belonged. Was that here? In the West? In England? In Manchester? We spoke about growing up in the United Kingdom pre 9/11 and then post 9/11, migrating to the United Kingdom, community, and how community was an interchangeable thing. We discussed the way certain communities only enabled us to bring a part of our Muslimness, whether that be communities within the diaspora, male-oriented, cultural, workspace, social space, women’s spaces, and/or all spaces. For example, a participant spoke candidly about an opportunity in the workspace that she later realized she had received due to her being the token Muslim. We also discussed the acceptance of Muslim women solely based on the notion of us being oppressed beings and in need of rescuing. Often the workspace has handled the practical parts of our religion, such as prayers, with disregard. Many of us around the table shared instances of having to go to extreme lengths to fulfil our duties of prayers, sometimes even involving human resources teams for support in advocating for time space to do this. The most profound thing that stuck with me is that the participants agreed on one thing: that every Muslim woman they knew, including themselves, has at some point had to size themselves down and belittle themselves so Islam isn’t reflected negatively to our non-Muslim counterparts in any of these spaces more than it already is, so that the Muslim community isn’t demonized further. It often seems like it’s a responsibility on us as Muslim women not to fuel that fire.

We then went on to discuss identity. This comprised the intersections of our identity: our Muslimness, the British side to us, our ethnicity, being a woman, and how the crossovers lead to a grey area of experiences and assumptions by those who surround us. I set a task for the participants to draw a necklace filled with charms that embraced the labels we chose. The participants chose their words carefully: Muslim, faith, and more personal definitions of what religion meant to them. This then steered our conversation towards our being as Muslim women when faith is an added layer to our identity. In the small groups I worked in, and the one-to-one conversations I had about this topic, it seemed as if the constant need to justify our faith, our Muslimness or lack thereof, was a universal Muslim woman experience—a shared trauma we never really speak about because it's just the way it is. This experience seemed to be condition of acceptance from our non-Muslim peers, who taunt us with terms such as integration so that we may become more palatable or tolerable.

Woman sit around a workshop table covered in notebooks, paper and snacks.

Participants from take back my body research workshop by Nasima Bee at Saan1 Manchester commissioned by Factory International.

With this in mind, I asked the participants to write an ode to home, bringing us to the final section of the workshop, which I hoped would encapsulate the answer I sought to gather. The odes were tremendous. Participants wrote love letters to what their version of home looked like: the places; the people; the communities that disputed us; the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. There was writing about how home was an embrace, but at times it was hostile too. Some discussed that home was a journey—a moving, transient thing. That it could not be whittled down to anything tangible. Rather it was a figurative imagining of peace. Home could be somewhere we feel safe and secure to bring every part of who we are, our stories, the uncomfortable versions we depict of ourselves, and the portrayals made of us. There were some that described empathy with those portrayals. Others used words of anger and sorrow.

The closed conversations followed the same pattern of the workshop. These felt intimate and less jovial. Perhaps this was because I hadn’t included any activities, but focused on the talking points only. This removed the therapeutic component of what made the workshops so special. Yet closing the workshop felt more like a prologue, as did each closed conversation. I had carefully prized open a door that suppressed so many feelings: my feelings, the feelings of each of the participants that I had worked with, and feelings I am sure that other Muslim women could weigh in on and attest to. It hurt to hear these words and say these words out loud for us in the open.

I had carefully prized open a door that suppressed so many feelings: my feelings, the feelings of each of the participants that I had worked with, and feelings I am sure that other Muslim women could weigh in on and attest to.

I was moved to write. This writing was different to any other writing I had done that focused on my navigation of what it meant to be a Muslim woman in today’s political climate. This topic is a huge part of my work anyway, as it is the lens I see through as a Muslim woman born, bred, living, and making work as an artist in the United Kingdom. In 2019, when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that Muslim women were “letterboxes” and referred to Muslim women who chose to wear the burka as “bank robbers,” we faced the backlash, both institutionally and in the more prevalent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes geared solely towards us.

I spent some time sitting with the content of our soulful exchanges from the workshop—the shared space that we chose to show up for ourselves, away from whatever definition others had of us—and I began to carve the beginnings of a performance poetry piece I titled “take back my body.” It is an exploration of everything we talked about, what I had been thinking about, and, well and truly, a definition I imagine for myself to the question of what it means to be a Muslim woman in the current climate of political Britain. Part of the opening poem reads:

i often size myself down

ill fitting

too big for explanation

too small for eradication

i am the pill you cannot swallow

I think these lines really condense some of the feelings which were spoken of in these workshops.

Three young woman sit in chairs reading scripts as a part of a workshop.

Nasima Bee, Sara Abanur, and Nadia Emam in take back my body rehearsal at HOME theatre Manchester, commissioned by Factory International.

It’s difficult to write anything when the conversations I am supposed to be responding to were overflowing with emotion. There is still ample material for me to think about, an abundance of generosity that will inform my work in the future. These workshops now shape how I think and allow me to actualize my own outlook. I am so thankful to each and every Muslim woman who came to these workshops, those I spoke to in one-to-one interviews, and all the conversations I’ve had with the women in my own circles of friends and family who always give in their sisterhood and friendship. It is a kind of care I have never received anywhere else.

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Thoughts from the curator

Neoliberal and colonial empires have devastated Muslim communities across the globe. Whether it is British imperialism in South Asia or the military adventurism of the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, geopolitical violence has moved Muslims from homelands to colonizers’ lands. Throughout these migrations, theatre and the telling of stories have been sources of strength and solidarity, a legacy drawing on the origins of Muslim history. Indeed, the dates of today’s Islamic calendar bear the acronym “AH” or “After Hijrah,” a term that references the migration of early Muslims from the religious oppression they faced in Makkah to a more tolerant context in Medina. Drawing on this legacy of migration to escape subjugation, Transatlantic Muslim Voices examines the ways that contemporary British and US theatre artists have continued or drawn inspiration from this practice through their own work. The contributors to this series are diverse in their racial, ethnic, gender, linguistic, and sexual identities, but all of them meditate on what it means to be a Muslim on the move.

Transatlantic Muslim Voices

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